Grand Funk Railroad: “Got This Thing On The Move” (Grand Funk, 1970)
Sometimes the internet is great. Yesterday, I posted a song by early British hard rock band Gun and talked about my strange post-holiday jones for early hard rock. And today, Doom And Gloom From The Tombposted a link to a whole Black Sabbath show from 1970. I went out and found an audio-only bootleg of the whole show, and I’ve been nodding aggressively to it as I attend to computer-facilitated business all evening.
But I’m not posting a Black Sabbath track tonight. No, I wanted to fly a little freak flag for something else I’ve been blasting a lot this week. Something much less cool. Don’t get me wrong. Grand Funk were once cool. That was in the early 70s, when heavy rock bands with dopey lyrics and long songs were just about the apex of cool, and then punk happened, and it was no longer cool. And now poptimism has happened and nobody knows what’s cool anymore. But Grand Funk kinda still aren’t.
A lot of things whose cachet was harshed on by punk have been rehabbed in recent years (see: Black Sabbath), but the wave of re-evaluation just hasn’t hit the “wild, shirtless lyrics of Mark Farner; the bone-crushing bass of Mel Schacher; the competent drum work of Don Brewer,” to quote Homer Simpson. Well, if I’m capable of anything on the internet, please let me be capable of starting that re-evaluation right here, at least of their superb debut album.
First, “Got My Thing On The Move.” Isn’t this song awesome? I mean that in the most literal way, too, as in it’s capable of inspiring awe. The groove on this song is unbelievable, and so is the guitar tone. Especially in the wake of punk and other DIY movements, I don’t think people give a lot of consideration to things like guitar tone, especially the sound of distortion, but damn, listen to that. It’s like the razor and the beard rolled into one surreal object. Perfectly ragged.
That Grand Funk debut is solid all the way through, but it closes with an absolutely epic double-punch in “Paranoid” (no relation to the Sabbath song) and their apocalyptic version of the Animals’ “Inside Looking Out.” It opens with “Got My Thing.” As far as I’m concerned, as long as those three tracks remained in place, you could fill the middle of the LP with twenty minutes of light conversation and it would still be a great album.
What I’m saying is, underestimate this band at your peril. And go listen to their first album. It rocks.
Gun: “The Sad Saga Of The Boy And The Bee” (Gun, 1968)
I’m not sure of the reason, but this week I have had a powerful appetite for vintage hard rock. I’m thinking of pre- and proto-metal here—stuff from before 1975. Tear Gas, Black Sabbath, Budgie, Dust, Grand Funk Railroad… That sort of thing.
Maybe it’s just my brain reacting to the mushiness of the season, but whatever the reason it’s been fun listening. Gun isn’t a well-known band—they released two albums in the late 60s before breaking up, and had one minor UK hit with a song called “Race With The Devil.” Brothers Adrian and Paul Gurvitz are slightly better known for a band they formed in the 70s with Ginger Baker called the Baker-Gurvitz Army. In the 60s, they were obscuring their ethnic-ish surname behind the pseudonym Curtis, and teamed with drummer Louis Farrell, they made a pretty impressive debut album.
"The Sad Saga Of The Boy And The Bee" wasn’t the hit, but for me it’s the most entertaining song on the album. There’s something marvelously incongruous about those garish horns and fluttering strings in amidst all the riffage and psychedelic harmony vocals, and I love the effect, especially when the strings keep going after the song is over in a sort of carnival fun house swirl. Adrian’s guitar playing is pretty excellent, too. Check his little mini-solo at the very end.
Really, I can’t believe how many of these albums there are out there. Digging through the psychedelic era has brought me much joy, though I will say it can be a drag sifting through five pretty lame albums to get to that one that spins your head around. It’s worth it, though. And with an album cover like this, you had to figure this one had some promise:
The Beatles: “Christmas Time Is Here Again” (Fan Club Christmas EP, 1967)
Every year from 1963 to 1969, the Beatles sent members of their fan club a special Christmas EP on a flexi-disc. They weren’t musically substantial and sometimes got downright weird, but when you take all seven together, they paint an amusing picture of a band people take very seriously not taking themselves seriously at all.
The 1967 EP is probably the “best.” It at least sounds as though they may have planned it out ahead of time, and it has a chorus, though it makes up for that by lacking verses. Like all of its fellow EPs, it’s mostly odd sound collage and mugging for the microphone. This was the last one all four members made together, too. In 1968 and 69, they each sent in a bit of material separately to be edited together.
If you’d like to hear them all, I’ve uploaded them here. The bitrate is low, but flexi-discs had atrocious sound to begin with so it’s not as though that matters. Enjoy.
This will be my final Year-End 2010 post. It was a good year, and I thought I’d wrap up with something reflective and peaceful, if maybe a little dark.
"Fleurette Africaine" is a Duke Ellington composition, originally performed on the 1960 Ellington/Mingus/Roach album Money Jungle, which is one of my favorite albums ever. On that record, it’s three and a half minutes long and has some of the floating, eerie quality you hear on Iyer’s version, but Iyer really takes it to his own place.
Solo is an excellent record in its own right, and “Fleurette” functions as something of a late-album rest after a frenetic middle. Iyer lets it breathe, working his way in slowly with a set of variations on the main theme, then spends eight minutes exploring every little nook and space within the song. Turns out there are a lot of them waiting to be found—the piece is deceptively simple. Iyer’s exploration is rewarding and very worth eight minutes of your day.
Coming to the end of the 2010 wrap-up, I want to check in on a record that got very little attention but turned out to be one of my favorite things in 2010.
Max Richter works in a style close to minimalism that’s not quite minimalism. A better word for it than minimal might just be simple—this is music where not much happens, but it feels as though a lot has transpired when it’s over.
It’s a particular match to the frigid cold we’ve had the last few weeks in Southeast Michigan. The trudging string quartet of “Journey 4” seems to soundtrack the coating of snow and the gray, ragged tops of the bare, wind-blasted trees out my window. It also oddly works to musically describe the peculiar warmth of this time of year, when you’re inside, buffered from the cold by walls and heavy clothing, and a lot of people have lights out.
I’m not much for Christmas or religion or shopping or any of that, but I do love the lights this time of year. The way strings of small lights illuminate a room or a lawn from so many points at once, without clear shadows and a soft evenness is very pleasing. It looks warm even when the temperature is hanging out in the teens (Fahrenheit, anyway).
Is it odd that I hear in this music some sort of insulating quality? Something that keeps out the cold even as it plays as a perfect soundtrack to the sights of a cold time of year?
Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabate: “Fantasy” (Ali & Toumani, 2010)
I spent less time this year with “world” music than I usually get to, for a whole boring variety of reasons. It hurt a bit, really, to process so little of it, because I feel like music, more than anything else, is what keeps me connected to people around the globe, and not just in the mundane way the Internet literally connects me, but a real emotional connection, to people with whom I share little else in common.
I don’t know if the fact that it was one of the few non-Western albums I had a chance to spend a lot of time with had anything to do with it, but this wound up atop my albums list. There’s no science to putting those lists together. It just seemed right to have it there.
Ali and Toumani are two of Mali’s greatest modern artists. This is Ali Farka Touré’s very last recording. He was sick when he made it, and I think he knew. He pours himself into his guitar on every second of this album, and he’s not showy—he mainly provides a hypnotic, rock-solid bed for Diabate’s kora explorations. This is what Ali Farka Touré was: solid, a man people could count on and lean on.
He much of the end of his life as mayor of his hometown, Niafunké, where he spent his own money, earned from a successful performing and recording career, to improve services. It saddens me greatly that we’ll never hear new music from him again.
"Fantasy" is Ali and Toumani improvising on the spot. It’s beautiful in very uncomplicated way—I’m not sure how many Western musicians are even capable of achieving this kind of beauty. We have our own kinds of beauty for a reason, I suppose.
Captain Beefheart: “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus” (Clear Spot, 1972)
During the coda to Frank Zappa’s “Muffin Man,” FZ calls out his band members, and this is how he introduces Don Van Vliet: “Captain Beefheart on vocals and soprano sax and madness.”
This is maybe the best description of Van Vliet’s musical career, a two-decade odyssey that he completed under the name Captain Beefheart. Yes, he was a vocalist, and yes he played sax (among other wind instruments), but the madness was the key.
Most of the obituary posts I write for Every Great Song Ever are for artists whose music I felt some personal connection to or who were personal favorites for years. Captain Beefheart doesn’t really fall in that category. I rarely listen to him—my copy of Trout Mask Replica has been played maybe three times in twelve years.
I don’t find much of his music enjoyable, or the kind of thing I want to listen to for pleasure, but I know this: Captain Beefheart made necessary music. In its Western guise, art is a progression outward. It becomes more expansive over time because there are certain agents of art that are willing to push its progress. Many of them are ignored or misunderstood, and in some cases they stand far enough outside the norms of their time that only a tiny number of people will ever dig what they did on a level of pure enjoyment. For everyone else, it is enough simply to appreciate it, to understand that, while it may not be pretty, it was necessary.
Listen to “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus.” This is one of the few Beefheart songs I truly love and listen to with any regularity (some of Safe As Milk, too). It was recorded in 1972, and I think it may be the best performance his Magic Band ever gave. His guitarists, Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo) and Mark Boston (aka Rockette Morton), are squeezing out the raw material for a thousand post-punk bands and punk hadn’t even happened yet.
Even at their most challenging and off-sounding, Beefheart’s records were intentional about their challenging-ness and off-ness. It all made sense in Van Vliet’s head, even if it can take a fair amount of effort to wrap your own head around it.
I think it’s easy to underestimate the importance of artists like Beefheart in light of their relative obscurity. What makes them important—what makes them necessary—is that they clear the space that less bold but still very creative people need in which to work and invent something of their own. Most musicians would never go as far out as Beefheart, and they don’t have to. But they may not go as far out as they do had it not been for him and others like him pushing out those boundaries. The net effect is that artists who follow the trailblazers wind up having commercially viable careers working in territory that wouldn’t have been available to them just a few years earlier.
Van Vliet spent his last three decades escaping from Captain Beefheart, retiring from music completely in 1982 to focus on visual art. He died today at age 69 after years of fighting multiple sclerosis. My thanks to him for the work he did.
I love a good pop song. I still get to call this a pop song, right? That term is so slippery—the stuff atop the charts changes constantly, and so what we think of as a pop song does too. But really, what else is this? Indie rock, I guess?
For me, the definition of pop song has to be flexible enough to account fro everything that’s ruled the charts at one point or another, which basically means this: highly memorable and broadly accessible. If it has those two qualities I don’t see the point of calling it much of anything else. You could hyphenate it if you wanted to provide clarification maybe. Indie-pop, then.
Anyway, Slow Club’s “Giving Up On Love” gets the pop song job done with considerable aplomb. The UK duo borrowed a fragment of Motown bassline, and apparently decided that the whole song needed to be chorus, which… hey, no complaints.
This is the album version. The single version that accompanies the video is a lot faster and not quite as good in my opinion.
A quick one now that Tumblr has returned from its slumber. This Bay Area band clearly takes some cues from Stereolab and does it very well. Future Factory is a crazily diverse album (21 tracks), and this is the jewel in its crown. Love those buzzing organs and massed vocals. It sounds like the 60s and the 90s and the 00s all at once, which makes it rather timeless.
Captain Ahab: “Acting Hard” (The End Of Irony, 2010)
Not for everyone.
This is a phrase used all the time to try to warn people that a piece of music is pretty damn odd, and man, does it ever apply to this wild song by Captain Ahab. These guys are from Los Angeles, and I’m still not sure if they were trying to be ironic by naming their album The End Of Irony.
What I do know if that this is not the kind of thing I normally dig. It’s somewhere between Ministry and Mr. Bungle, neither of which I’ve ever gravitated to, and on top of that, it opens with super-cheesy fake Gregorian chants. Under normal circumstances, that’s a huge no. But like I said, this is not normal. There’s something about the way they’ve put all of this together that really grabs me and gets me to look past the fact that it’s essentially a recipe made up of ingredients I normally wouldn’t give a second thought to.
Tops on the list of things it does well is incorporate its samples. The “back-slap you for actin’ hard” bit comes from Sly Boogie’s “It’s Nuthin" (at around the 1:40 mark), and it’s a very odd snippet to build the central rhythm of your song around. Less odd is the sample of the opening bars of Laurie Anderson’ "From the Air" that becomes the song’s backbone as it launches onto the digital hardcore tangent that constitutes its second half.
As if to confirm that my liking this was a total fluke, the rest of this album is horrible. Or at least I think it is. Maybe I’m just becoming a humorless old man, but it’s just impossible for me get behind songs like “I Don’t Have A Dick” and the cavalcade of other potty jokes that litter the record. But yeah, on this one song, they balanced a bunch of stuff I don’t like in a way that hooked me, so credit to them.